Back On Patrol

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One of the delights of hunting with the air rifle is that we’re not constrained by any ‘season’ relating to our quarry in the same way that, say, pheasant and wildfowl shooters are.

Unless it’s self-imposed, as may be the case if you’ve been so successful that you need to let numbers recover.

By and large, though, the airgunner can just pick up the rifle and go out on any land where he’s lucky enough to have permission to undertake pest control.

Ian uses a straw bale as a sniping support

Ian uses a straw bale as a sniping support

After my week break in Cumbria (where I duly observed the family’s temporary ‘no guns’ rule), I was rewarded with a weekend hunting pass. It was an offer I certainly wasn’t going to turn down!

The plan was not to have a plan. I was content just to see what we – Dylan and I – tripped over on a random two-day walkabout of my permissions…

At this point, I’d remind readers that I’m still very much enjoying my ‘back to basics’ approach to shooting. I venture out with a light bag containing only the necessaries: ammo, knife, varmint calls.

I’m not carrying around any decoys, hide poles, rangefinder and the like. No bells, whistles, flutes or drums – it’s pretty much a very basic Barnett who hits the trail, enjoying his hunting like he did four decades ago, as a teenage airgun shooter.

With the harvest mostly in and with autumn’s abundance surrounding me, it made sense to target the species that would be capitalising on the fruits of this time of year. So, first up was a wander through the copses bordering the stubbles in the hope of grabbing a woodpigeon or two off their guard.

I was delighted when a carrion crow lingered far too long within range of Purdey, my little BSA Ultra SE. I had the advantage of the dark backdrop of the wood, and was nicely tucked within the trees when I spotted it – though, this being a crow, I was also fully expecting it to lift off as I raised the rifle. The crow was intent on something at its feet, however (which turned out to be a black slug), and paid the penalty for unusually lacklustre observation.

A mile further along, I had the opportunity to turn the situation inside out. The farmer had left a stack of barley bales on the stubble, near a wood which is bordered by a rabbit warren. It was certainly worth a wait to see if I could ambush a coney for the pot. Dylan lay in the shade of a bale while I used the straw platform as a sniping support.

The beech nut, or beechmast, is food for both woodies and bushy-tails

The beech nut, or beechmast, is food for both woodies and bushy-tails

After a 20-minute wait, first one, then another rabbit emerged to browse on the grass ride at the field’s edge. I flipped one, but the other retreated to cover at the disturbance caused by the impact.

Dylan obliged with the retrieve and threw the rabbit disdainfully at my feet. I soon understood his demeanour – it was a mangy specimen that he’d collected for his master – myxy scarred and very lean.

Oh well, at least I’d got some crow bait! I was tempted to track back the mile and retrieve the ditched crow, but apathy got the better of me – so I left Bugsy intact, and bagged him before moving on into the wood.

Among the deciduous trees, I began searching for those species which would attract mine enemy – the grey squirrel. My recent time in Cumbria (see page 58) had really brought home the importance of eradicating this evil little pest which, over the past half-century has entirely driven out Norfolk’s generic population of beautiful red squirrels.

Hazel, prolific here on my permissions, is the grey squirrel’s favourite tree – particularly just before the nuts have browned off. Tracking squirrels in the treetops as they wrestle the green cobnuts from the branch is great sport, made all the more easy with my lurcher’s ears and nose as an aid.

We toppled a couple and took another at a drinker – a pool of water at the base of a beech tree. On which note, don’t ignore the beech as a target for either squirrels or woodies. The beech nut (often referred to as beechmast) is food for both.

This squirrel was taken out while pausing to drink at the base of a tree

This squirrel was taken out while pausing to drink at the base of a tree

You know that annoying moment when you’re stalking through a wood looking upward and a flock of woodies clatter up from the floor nearby? Well, I’ll bet that if you check the floor, it’s littered in windfall beechmast.

The other big squirrel magnet, of course, is the oak tree. Again, they favour the unripe (green) acorns. If it’s the beech that brings a bonus of woodies, then the oak’s added bounty is the jay.

They’ll visit an oak tree frequently to pick off the acorns, and then fly away to bury them for future attention, rather like the grey squirrel does. Actually, they forget where they buried them… and the nuts germinate, growing into trees, which make forests and… oh, shut up Barnett!

If I’m not careful, I’ll be convincing everyone that greys and jays have a purpose with Mother Nature!

Anyway, day one was a good day ‘back’ on the permission – a crow, a rabbit (albeit diseased) and some squirrels.

Next day, and I had the same basic plan – walkabout. Except that I was in possession of ripe and, by now, fast-fermenting crow bait; I’d inadvertently left the rabbit in the motor overnight. A motor which was now crawling with rabbit fleas and smelt like an abattoir! Consequently, the drive to the Old Hall wasn’t the most comfortable of journeys…

Once there, I knew where to put the bait to good use. I slit open the guts and lobbed the rabbit on top of a spoil pile. I often leave dead squirrels here if I don’t have an ‘outlet’ for them (a ferreter or chef) and the estate crows often call by to check for a free meal. As do the buzzards.

I left it where it landed and began the walkabout. Dylan was in tow again and we were keeping a weather-eye on the approaching rain. A good sign, however – so we headed for the hazel plantation. All sensible creatures feed-up before a deluge.

Left: Slit open to reveal its innards, a rabbit carcass is irresistible to corvids

Slit open to reveal its innards, a rabbit carcass is irresistible to corvids

Often, the most sensible approach to shooting in these situations is a brazen one: just sit right under the tree they’re likely to target. Thus I picked a beech, surrounded by young hazels, on the bottom of a slope.

There is something very satisfying about watching your lurcher’s nose twitch and his ears drill forward… and then seeing a grey squirrel skipping over the brow of the hill toward your waiting barrel! I settled for the one grey this time, my position being plagued by deer keds (or deer flies, Lipoptena cervi).

Part of the louse fly family, keds fly in, land on you, shed their wings… then look for somewhere warm to suck your blood. They’re harmless, but at three times the size of a tick, they spook the hell out of me!

Creeping back to the spoil pile, I found a carrion crow gorging the rabbit guts, and bounced it onto the turf beyond with a well-placed Air Arms Diabolo Field of the .22 variety. It was a good end to an overall good weekend.

Except that when I got home, I found two rabbit fleas on my arm as I stripped off my shirt. Then a crawling sensation behind my ear had me trying to catch something I couldn’t see. With the help of a mirror, I pulled off a deer ked, laid it on the window sill and grabbed the camera to snap it for your education. Now, as I pen this just four hours since arriving home, my scalp and neck are itching.

Given I’ve had a long, hot shower, it must purely be sensory memory of that ked’s harmless presence.

At least I hope it’s just that…

Ian Barnett

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